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$20 Million Sez Solar Powered FCEVs Are On The Way

The US Department of Energy has just announced a new $20 million round of funding to bump the market for FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles) up to the next level. Of the ten winning projects, four deal with hydrogen fueling stations and six deal with new ways of producing hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles. The goal is to achieve a retail price below the $4 per gallon equivalent mark.

We’ve been having quite an interesting discussion about hydrogen and FCEVs over here at CleanTechnica, but before you (or some of you, anyways) hit the roof consider that of those six hydrogen production projects, none are aimed at producing hydrogen from fossil natural gas.

solar powered hydrogen FCEVs

Hydrogen FCEV by Joseph Brent.

The Dark Side Of FCEVs (And BEVs)

For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen for fuel cells is produced primarily from fossil natural gas. The two-stage process, called steam reforming, yield copious amounts of carbon dioxide along with hydrogen, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Although FCEVs are touted as zero emission vehicles, that’s only a tailpipe claim. They are only as clean as their source, which under the current state of affairs means that FCEVs are dragging a heavy load of baggage related to hydrogen production, including methane leakage, earthquakes, water contamination, and local health impacts.

The US still relies heavily on coal and fossil natural gas for electricity generation, so that puts FCEV owners in the same fix as many battery EV owners.

However, technology is rapidly evolving to provide more BEV owners with solar power and other clean energy sources on the grid, as well as off-grid options such as personal home solar systems.

FCEV tech is running behind the curve, but it is also evolving to shed its reliance on fossil natural gas.

Currently the other options are renewable gas or liquids, and solar power. That is where the Energy Department is focusing its resources in this round of funding.

Solar Powered FCEVs

We’ve been following the development of the “artificial leaf,” which is basically a photoelectrochemical cell that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen without any fossil fuel input.

The new round of funding goes to four projects that expand on that concept.

1. Our friends over at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory get $3 million to improve the efficiency of solar powered water-splitting, based on new cutting edge semiconductor materials.

2. The University of Hawaii of Honolulu, Hawaii (Hawaii is a hotbed of fuel cell activity, btw) will gets $3 million for developing new photoelectrodes.

3. Sandia National Laboratories gets $2.2 million for a new high-efficiency solar thermochemical reactor.

4. The University of Colorado gets $2 million for a new solar-thermal reactor that involves concentrating solar power.

Real Natural Gas For Clean Hydrogen Production

The other two projects in the hydrogen production group involve using non-fossil natural gas for the feedstock.

That includes the only private company in the hydrogen production group, FuelCell Energy Inc., best known for its stationary fuel cell power plants (the company also received $3 million in Energy Department funding for a fuel cell based carbon capture system back in 2011).

With the new funding, the Connecticut-based company gets $900,000 for a hybrid hydrogen production system. The details are a bit slim right now but FuelCell already has a system in the works that can run on renewable biogas as well as fossil gas.

The system also has potential for running on liquid feedstocks as well.

That leads to the last chunk of change for the hydrogen production group, which goes to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The lab gets $2.2 million for a hydrogen production system that is aimed specifically at using renewable bio-derived feedstocks in liquid form.

More And Better Hydrogen Delivery

Aside from the sustainability issues arising from fossil natural gas, FCEVs also face some serious infrastructure-related obstacles.


The other four projects selected by the Energy Department address these issues as they occur at hydrogen dispensing stations:

1. The Texas-based Southwest Research Institute gets $1.8 million for a new hydrogen compression system.

2. The company Nuvera Fuel Cells Inc. of Billerica, Massachusetts gets $1.5 million for a “smart” high pressure hydrogen dispenser.

Judging from the description, we’re guessing that this particular project is aimed at ramping up one advantage that FCEVs currently have over BEVs. Fueling up an FCEV takes far less time than charging a battery, even with quick-charging.

3. Oak Ridge National Laboratory gets $2 million for lowering the cost of  hydrogen storage, with a steel concrete composite.

4. The Virginia company Wiretough Cylinders gets $2 million for another type of high pressure hydrogen storage vessel that incorporates a steel wire wrapping, which is also expected to result in lower costs.

As for the long term picture, according to the Energy Department the cost of manufacturing fuel cells for EVs has dropped by more than 80 percent since 2002 and more than 35 percent just since 2008, while performance in terms of durability has doubled.

If you have any ideas about whether or not this will all lead to sustainable, affordable FCEVs for the mass market, feel free to leave a comment in the thread.

Meanwhile, much of that aforementioned progress has come about thanks to taxpayers, through funding from the Energy Department and other federal agencies, so let’s all go ahead and pat ourselves on the back.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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